Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sandbagging or realism?

Interesting debate going on today after more retailers reported earnings. Several folks insinuated that management teams are sandbagging earnings expectations for Q4 so they can knock it out of the park. Let's be clear...no sane retail management team is going to be pumping up expectations when headline unemployment is 10.2% and the more realistic U-6 number that includes discouraged workers and the under employed is 17.5%. If people can't get jobs, they can't spend.

Yes, last year things were so dire, folks were so scared, that the sales were totally abysmal. It almost seemed Apocalyptic. And we have absolutely come back from that brink. But this time last year unemployment was only 6.8%, most folks had credit cards that hadn't had limits reduced, retailers had way too much inventory that they sold to us at 60% off, and we were still in the mindset that retail therapy worked.

But this year, we don't have the same level of inventories so there won't be the same sales. Oh sure, expect retailers to have promotions. Just don't expect that there will be the smell of fear when you walk in the stores. Retailers know you expect a discount, and they've procured items at costs that will allow them to put them "On Sale" while they still make decent margins. And if you buy it when it isn't "On Sale", they'll make even more.

The major retailers are saying November is starting weak. Smaller retailers are saying November is starting weak. JC Penney, Kohl's and Walmart have all started Black Friday discounting earlly. If I was managing a retailer, I wouldn't be enthusiastic about what's happening out there.

Caveat - one semi bright spot came from the CEO of American Express this morning when he said on CNBC that his cardholders spent 3% more in October. Maybe it will continue to holiday... maybe it won't. Most major outlets are expecting a fall in sales.

The trick right now is to find the best operators in retail and cling to them if you feel you must own a retailer. Discounters will do better than mainline departmetn stores. Higher end stores seem to be stronger than mainline too. Whatever you do, don't be tempted to lower your standards.

Bottom line: If you want to own these stocks do your research. Watch monthly retail sales. Walk the stores and watch trends. Talk to people about what they're doing for the holidays this year. Or just keep following me here, on CNBC and on Twitter and see what I'm seeing. Be careful out there.

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